Recently, I visited the newly opened Bistro Nguyen’s which replaced the recently closed Wasabi in Civic. I was originally pretty skeptical of this new Vietnamese restaurant which screams hipster and I’ve never trusted hipster Vietnamese food. It’s just one of those cuisines that doesn’t translate well to hipsterness. Vietnamese food is all about delicious flavoursome dishes, good portion sizes and homely comfort. Its not something that photographs particularly well, or should be plated in a hipster way. However, after seeing the menu which included many other traditional Vietnamese dishes, not just pho, I felt a lot more comfortable that I would have an enjoyable meal and decided to try it out.
Bistro Nguyen’s menu is quite extensive and it includes all the things you should find on a good Vietnamese menu. I know, weird comment to make but most Canberra restaurants only do a couple of things like pho, pork chop broken rice etc, but they tend to miss other key Vietnamese dishes like bon bo hue or hu tieu. Yes, I know I’m a terrible Vietnamese food nerd but it has to be said! (Plus, I can’t help it, I was raised on this stuff!)
Bistro Nguyen’s menu also includes a variety of different Saigon rolls. Its really interesting to see Saigon rolls at an actual restaurant instead of at a Vietnamese bakery. Saigon rolls are more of a street food, quick snack or in a sorts, a Vietnamese take away. I guess it does make some sense for Canberra, where pork roll shops and Vietnamese bakeries are extremely rare plus I think Bistro Nguyen’s sells the Saigon rolls at lunch time over at the bain-marie section of their store.
Before I talk about the food, we noticed something interesting about Bistro Nguyen’s store name. When I was typing this up, we were arguing about the store’s name, since it was a circle and all. We couldn’t agree on whether the name was Bistro Nguyen’s or Nguyen’s Bistro. The second one of course makes a lot more sense. After checking their official Facebook page, we can confirm that it is indeed Bistro Nguyen’s, which makes no sense because of the apostrophe but after a while, it hit me! I realised, Vietnamese sentences are constructed backwards. So yeah, that was interesting.
Anyway, food time.
First up, some entrees, the Stuffed chicken wings ($7.50). This was from Bistro Nguyen’s blackboard special. We actually didn’t notice this at first and were about to get some pork (nem noung) fresh rice paper rolls but as the waiter came, my eyes looked up and saw this on the blackboard special. I’m always someone who will give a bit of precedence for blackboard specials because I like to imagine that is what the chef is secretly willing me to eat. Also, chicken wings will win every time for me, over just about anything.
For $7.50, you only get one chicken drumstick but it’s a pretty big one! I think they pretty much just remove the bone piece and then fill it with more meaty goodness and then some more, because I don’t remember bone being that big! This stuffed chicken wing at Bistro Nguyen’s was filled with pork mince with vermicelli, a mushroom known an nam meo in Vietnamese or apparently, Jew’s ear in English and some other things I couldn’t quite make out. It was all mashed up into this tight thing, and just jammed in the chicken, I really liked it, and it wasn’t super soft and tender or anything, and kind of had a weird spring roll kind of flavour to it.
The stuffed chicken wing was tasty. The chicken was nice and crispy but it was more of light crumble so there wasn’t a lot of dough. As the shell wasn’t overly crispy, the more basic flavour of the chicken meat definitely came through strong. Luckily, the pork mince was really flavoursome and quite firm. The combination of the blander chicken meat with the strong pork mince worked well.
I of course could not go past the Saigon pork roll ($7.50). Of late, I’ve been trying to sample all the Saigon rolls (pork rolls, banh mi thit etc) in Canberra to see which one I like the best. Of course, when I saw it available on Bistro Nguyen’s menu, I had to give it a go. Outside of this roll, Bistro Nguyen also offers a beef, chicken and a vegetarian version. I went for the classic. Although, the pork rolls at Bistro Nguyen’s aren’t quite traditional they are definitely not bad, and while I harp on about traditional and authenticity all the time, I did find that I enjoyed this.
The pork roll here lacks shallots or onions and includes crackling pork belly. I’m normally a massive geek when it comes to pork rolls and I’m super pedantic about getting it right and authentic. However, when I sampled Bistro Nguyen’s version with the pork belly, it did not set alarm bells ringing, the soul of the banh mi was here and strong, and all the changes just worked within the confines of what this roll means.
I appreciated the addition of pork belly seeing as I’m paying Canberra’s premium pork roll prices, so that was a massive plus. However, the Vietnamese pate and mayonnaise or butter, which I regard as the most important element of a pork roll wasn’t especially strong here. They weren’t overly generous with it and both were on the milder side compared to what you’ll find at a really good pork roll place. However, here is where the pork belly came in, the meaty and heavily Asian spiced flavours of the pork worked well to enhance the flavours of the pate. I guess where the pate was lacking, the pork belly stepped in. So I guess it works in a way.
The rest of the pork roll was pretty spot on. There was a generous amount of pickled carrots and fresh cucumbers which were nice and crunchy. The pork roll included all the three pork roll meats, the white ham, the pink ham and the white meat with the pink fatty skin layer. However, you only get one circle piece of white meat with pink skin which is a bit scummy, though lots of places have started doing that now. There was also coriander and chilli! Oh the chilli, so the menu doesn’t state that there is chilli but the pork roll indeed comes with chilli and its the hot, small Vietnamese type, so they burn! Word of warning for everyone else, let them know you can’t eat chilli and don’t want it, if of course, you’re like me.
In the end of the day, its not a traditional pork roll but its still better than anything else you can get in or around Civic. (I still need to try the iPho’s one, and probably the Roll’d one.)
Onwards, to the good stuff, the soupy stuff. Pho dac biet ($13.50) (Special Pho). Bistro Nguyen’s has your usual pho choices, the basic pho tai, pho bo vien, pho ga and what not but the most interesting offering was the pho with wagyu beef sirloin (5+), brisket, tendon and beef meatballs for $16.50. I must say, I’ve never seen a Vietnamese restaurant offer wagyu but then again I’ve never been to a hipster Vietnamese restaurant before. We opted for the standard special pho; the grade 5 wagyu sounds fantastic and all but at the end of the day, the beef still gets completely cooked by the pho broth. So, I didn’t really see the point, but if anyone ever tries it, let me know how it is because I’m curious, just not $3 curious.
The actual pho was a bit of a let down but there is a caveat to that comment, so don’t stop reading here! When you walk into the store, you could smell the scent of the various herbs and spices in Bistro Nguyen’s different soupy dishes. Normally, if a pho smells deep, hearty and really delicious and meaty, chances are it probably will be pretty tasty. However, here at Bistro Nguyen’s when I took a sip of the pho, it didn’t taste quite right. It took me a while to figure it out but pretty much the pho at Bistro Nguyen’s was heavily watered down. It had all the right flavours, the spices, the meatiness and what not but none of them were really strong.
Having had that said, it could have just been that we ate at Bistro Nguyen’s on a bad day, which is unfortunately, something that can easily happen at a pho place. Growing up, I remember whenever my mum cooked pho, it was always best on the third day. The longer the bones and spices sat in the broth, the deeper and meatier it got. From my understanding, most restaurants having a running broth where they’ll just keep topping it up with water, new spices and bones. Hence, if you eat at a pho place on one of those days, its never really as pleasant, but if you get it on a good day, then it’s super flavourful. There are of course more popular and established places that have a couple of pots going to ensure they always have a good broth but Bistro Nguyen’s is only about a week or so old, so I don’t think thats quite expected yet. A disappointing pho, but one that I’m definitely willing to try again.
Onwards to the Hu tieu ($13.50). While the pho was a little watered down, the hu tieu was spot on and full of flavour. I don’t see hu tieu on many Vietnamese restaurant’s menu, its not quite as popular as pho but recently I’ve been having a hankering for it, I even asked my mum to make it for me next time I’m in Sydney. After having the hu tieu at Bistro Nguyen’s that craving is no more. When this came out, it smelt absolutely delicious and as I took a sip of the soup, I knew I had made the right choice.
Before I jump into how it tasted, I figured I might describe what hu tieu is since its a lot more unknown. Apparently, hu tieu is actually a Cambodian dish. I never knew this until I read the descriptor on Bistro Nguyen’s menu. I always just assumed it was Vietnamese since my mum made it pretty regularly and it sounds Vietnamese too. Well, regardless of its origin, hu tieu is delicious. The broth is made from pork and shrimp, with the flavour of the shrimp coming through much stronger, while the pork works as a base and after taste. The noodles in a hu tieu is also different to anything else in Vietnamese cooking. Its this clear, thicker noodle that’s rectangular in shape. Texture and taste wise, it reminds me of Korean potato noodle, just more al dente. Its then topped with a combination of pork meat, prawns and an oily garlic sauce.
The hu tieu at Bistro Nguyen’s was perfect. The noodles were lovely and soft while the broth was super strong in flavour. They didn’t have the garlic oil but no biggie. The hu tieu was topped with various Vietnamese hams, pork meat, a couple of fat and juicy prawns as well as some chicken. Bistro Nguyen’s also offers their hu tieu either dry or wet, which is great because my preference is always dry. (Though, I asked for mine dry and it arrived wet, but it tasted so good that I didn’t really mind).
Finally, a serving of the Soft shell crab ($13.50). We actually didn’t get this, we bumped into a friend who was having a quick dinner before heading home, they joined us and ordered this soft shell crab. As I didn’t try it, I won’t comment on how it tasted. This was one of Bistro Nguyen’s blackboard specials. I thought it was rather interesting, I don’t think I’ve ever seen my parents cook soft shell crab, I always just assumed that it was a Japanese thing. Like, Vietnamese cuisine does have crab, but its not done like this. Its normally older crab with the tough shell that you have to break with those clamps.
Though the way this smelt and look, it reminded me a lot of home. It looks like quite a lot of soft shell crab and our friend seemed to enjoy it. The crab comes with a side of salad, which you can’t see from the picture but if you want some rice, you’ll have to order that separately. I think it was about $3.50 for a serving or person.
I’m really happy to see another Vietnamese restaurant open up in Civic. I know this review sounds far from perfect but I think most of the issues can be put down to Bistro Nguyen’s being only about a week or so old. As time goes on things will definitely get better and once Bistro Nguyen’s has ironed out all the wrinkles I can see this place offering some really good and authentic Vietnamese eats. Or not, but you know, we’ll probably try it again in a month or so just to see how things are going.
Bistro Nguyen’s definitely screams hipster, from the store name, to the decor, to the attempts of making Vietnamese food presentable. However, when you look at the menu and try the food, it is actually quite spot on and authentic trashy Vietnamese (I say that in the most positive way possible). The menu has all the things you would expect from a good Vietnamese restaurant, which seems to be quite rare in Canberra. Like, yeah you can find a decent pho here but if you’re looking for something a little more left field, I find Canberra doesn’t quite cater for that. But now, there’s Bistro Nguyen’s to fill in that void for me, which is really cool because I’ve kind of got my favourite pho places locked down. It’d get a bit complicated if I had to add more to it.